The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Socio-Psychological Barriers to Peace

International Relations, Long Reads, Long Reads, Politics
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The Arabs and the Jews have co-existed without grievances for millennia. It is a tragedy that struggle for dominance between the two has become entrenched, resulting in a Gordian Knot of international relations no Alexander has managed to cut. Do the Arabs and Israelis ‘want’ peace? Each side continues the feud not because they inherently prefer a state of conflict, but because they ultimately believe that the benefits of conflict in this instance outweigh the costs. The material conditions are extensively discussed; the underlying psychology must be addressed to understand the reason for the conflict’s continuation.

1. The Psychological Characteristics of the Paradigm

It would be incorrect to say that humans form a conceptualization of the world based off the aggregate sum of the facts and observations present in their experience; it has largely been agreed that each datum is only significant in that it contributes to a broader framework in which new ideas are received (Kuhn, 1962). This framework has been referred to as a ‘paradigm’, originally referring mainly to scientific thought, but now extended to the beliefs and values of a society as a whole (Handa, 1986).

As outlined by Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, not only are all external stimuli filtered through a paradigm before an interpretation and a response, but there is usually intrinsic resistance to paradigm shift. Psychological experimentation has revealed that humans generally often resist experience that defies their expectations (Bruner and Postman, 1949). Even when one is faced squarely with the facts, a pre-existing paradigm still has an impact, often resulting in a zwischengegenstand, or ‘compromise object’ (Brunswick, 1934).

It is unclear whether differing paradigms are, as Kuhn claims, incommensurable, but ultimately given the quantities of individuals involved (in the millions) and generally a far more rigid ideological structure (as I will later explain), social paradigms are far less versatile than scientific ones (Smith, 2011). The differing paradigms of individuals will often result in different conclusions drawn from the same observation. Whilst nationalist Israelis may perceive the 6-Day War through the lens of Israel’s security needs for strategic depth as a pre-emptive strike to prevent future destruction (Kurtulus, 2007), Arabs, Palestinians in particular, considered it nothing less than wanton Jewish aggression. The differing conclusions of each side were therefore strengthened by relative perceptions of a single event.

2. The Political Realities of the Paradigm in Israel and the Arab nations

Just as scientific paradigms entrench themselves in the scientific community, also do dominant weltanschauungen often take control of the societies in which they are propagated. In modern societies, such as Israel and the Arab states, this is difficult for several reasons. Power and the common conception of ‘the truth’ are inextricably linked, as political, economic and institutional structures control discourse and the mechanisms by which true and false statements are separated (Foucault, 1980). These organisms, such as religious belief, cultural tradition, and the security establishment, are ingrained in society and accepted on an absolute, principled basis, with their various executives designated epistemological authorities and therefore trusted by the public (Mills, 2005). They may occupy significant social and cultural status, or they can exert influence over sources of information, such as the media, and the political regimes directing policy. Their position of power allows them to regulate dissent, and therefore prevent paradigm shifts from occurring, in the process consolidating their footing. An example of this is the strong grip of Hamas over the media and the education system in the Gaza Strip (Milton-Edwards, 2008).

Existing institutions and beliefs set the ‘Overton Window’ of acceptable policy measures; those which lay outside it are mostly considered to be ‘unthinkable’, or at the very least ‘radical’. Importantly, they often considered off-limits for discussion: the ‘three Nos’ of the Khartoum Resolution (no peace with, no recognition of and no negotiation with Israel) following the 6-Day War explicitly ruled out discussion of arguments in favour of peace. As a result, its merits were not properly represented, preventing a paradigm shift towards peace. Social stigma has similar power in this regard: the issues being discussed revolve around extremely high emotional stakes; proponents of unfashionable beliefs, such as peace with Israel, could expect to be ostracised from the community in order to ‘contain’ their ideas, or simply out of pure outrage. An example of this was the exclusion of Egypt from pan-Arab institutions following its decision to make peace with Israel in 1978.

The result of this, in the context of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, is that closed ideological loops form in which paradigms are driven even further apart even when the same event is observed. Information is processed in a manner that results in a fundamentally distorted conclusion, due to psychological and societal factors, which simply reinforces pre-existing biases.

Given this, why are the current paradigms so unlikely to result in peace on their own? What is necessary to overcome the barriers to peace that are created?

3. Case Study 1: The political and cultural beliefs of the various sides

A paradigmatic shift usually occurs following an accumulation of events considered anomalous by that worldview (Kuhn, 1962). Every indication is that in a social context this is rare, and current disagreements are to an extent self-replicating, that is to say, different opinions on for example responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem become less and less likely to be reconciled as time goes on. This is due to the formation of ‘echo chambers’- psychological research has suggested that individuals seek out information and discussion that reinforces the political beliefs they already have (Rickerson, 1998), otherwise referred to as ‘confirmation bias’. This has been especially true on internet social media (Barberá et al., 2015), resulting in less interaction and fewer challenges that may result in a change in beliefs.

Every indication is that there have been periods when a majority of Palestinians and Israelis, and arguably their leaders, have supported a peaceful two-state solution. The leadership of both sides made overtures towards peace at the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, which resulted in a number of political, military and symbolic concessions. However, in the years following the Oslo Accords a clear devolution was seen in the relations between the two sides. The PA failed to sufficiently reduce terrorist attacks against Israel and IDF redeployments did not happen according to the agreed schedules. In the end, the violation of its various terms resulted in a downward spiral of decreasing trust. The ultimate cause of this was the psychology of the various actors involved. Inherent contradictions between the Zionist and Arab Nationalist ideologies, specifically referring to land, its rightful owners and the various actions justifiable to secure it, had barely changed after decades, an example of the rigidity of the paradigms involved. These long-term contradictions resulted in the proliferation of suspicion on both sides, creating a (from their perspective) Nash equilibrium in which the undermining of peace terms in order to secure a better future strategic position is incentivised. 

The hatred and distrust which prolongs the conflict can also be attributed to purely psychological factors, as well as ideological ones. The stereotyping of a wide range of individuals into a single caricature is common to human nature. Firstly, the process of social categorization, in which one views individuals as members of their respective groups, largely occurs on an unconscious, spontaneous basis (Crisp and Hewstone, 2007). Secondly, the phenomenon of ‘perceptual accentuation,’ in which members of certain of groups are assigned (often incorrectly) traits deemed representative of that group of a whole, is similarly prevalent (Tajfel, 1970).

This is exacerbated through outgroup homogeneity, ‘the tendency to view members of outgroups as more similar to each other than we see members of ingroups’ (Linville, Salovey, & Fischer, 1986; Ostrom & Sedikides, 1992; Meissner & Brigham, 2001). 805 Israelis have been killed by suicide bombings between 1989 and 2016- one motivation for these extreme acts is the association of the Israelis as a homogenous group and therefore an unyielding hatred for random Israeli individuals, the victims of these attacks (Chen, 2012). These attacks provoke disproportionate retaliations and prolong conflict (as will be later be discussed). A 2008 study revealed that 77% of Israeli respondents believed that the Arabs and Palestinians had little regard for human life, and 79% agreed that dishonestly always characterized the Palestinians and Arabs (Halperin and Bar-Tal, 2009). This results in less willingness to co-operate and treat with the Palestinians as a group and reach a mutually agreeable peace.

4. Case Study 2: Arab-Islamic Culture

[the Palestinians] never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.’

            -Abba Eban

Another example of a barrier to peace is the manner in which the Arabs, Palestinian Arabs in particular, view the concept of ‘time’, a term which differs in its perception from culture to culture. As opposed to technocratic societies in which time is regarded as a largely economic resource, an emphasis is placed on ‘event time’, which is qualitative as opposed to quantitative (Alon and Brett, 2007). Furthermore, time is controlled absolutely by God. At the point when the main focus of religion is achieving submission to God, which largely characterises Islamic societies, haste becomes inherently stigmatized and patience is glorified.

What are the implications of this for the chances of a wider peace? Firstly, from the perspective of the Palestinians, especially the more extremist religious sectors of society, there is little harm in suspending or postponing regulations over minor issues or, crucially, when the Palestinians are themselves in a hopeless negotiating position. Immediately following the Arab defeats in the wars of 1948 and 1967, Israeli strategic dominance and superior military capabilities, in terms of technology, organisation and intelligence, were undeniable. Given the clear inevitably of an inability to for the foreseeable future achieve success in assaults against Israel, why was it that the Arabs considered a state of conflict preferable to attempting to settle for peace, something they refused to do in these circumstances?

Importantly, time is always considered to be on the side of those faithful to God, with Islamic prophesy declaring that ultimately Allah will ‘gather all human beings under the auspices of Islam’ (Zakay and Fleisig, 2010). Therefore, there is little immediate pressure on these entities, which operate within an Islamic paradigm, to sue for peace (a compromise which guarantees and solidifies the setbacks of the Arabs) given the supposed inevitability of long-term victory. Furthermore, the final goal for extremists involves a Utopian vision of the fulfilment of God’s will in the securing of the Palestinian waqf. For these individuals and groups, any finite amount of waiting and suffering is justifiable in order to achieve a nearly infinite benefit.

Finally, since the events of the 1948 war and the nakba, it is claimed that as refugees the Palestinians share a sense of ‘suspended time’, or ‘purgatory’ (Jamal, 2009). Given the supposedly temporary nature of their displacement and the certainty that a return is inevitable, the Palestinians have had no incentive to build a permanent home outside of their ancestral territory, remaining reliant on foreign aid and refugee camps, and have had no incentive to accept a peace which legitimises their status as a displaced group. The failure to construct a stable status of habitation and take advantage of various initiatives such as the 1954 Jordan Nationality Law which granted Jordanian citizenship to most displaced Palestinians in the West Bank, has resulted in a long-term barrier to resolution because the Palestinians and their representative organisations have always since been unwilling to successfully negotiate without some guarantee of a ‘Right of Return,’ something Israel simply will not grant for the security reasons discussed in the next section.

5. Case Study 3: the Israeli-Jewish Security Paradigm

‘A state of mutual armament [for Israel] is more security than a state of mutual peace.’

            -Uzi Arad, Haaretz, July 2009

Whilst the vast majority of worldviews differ in some form, geopolitical and strategic paradigms usually intersect at various points. Due to the nature of our evolutionary past humans are generally cost averse, and therefore the possible relative harms of a certain action are usually exaggerated in favour of the possible benefits. This is supported by overwhelming psychological research (Hintze et Al., 2015), and has also been observed specifically in a conflict negotiation environment (Tversky and Kahneman, 1993).

This can be combined with the emphasis in the Zionist narrative on the past suffering and oppression of the Jewish people, serving as a lens through which modern events were interpreted, resulting in a prevailing characterisation that the existence and autonomy of the Nation of Israel was continuously under threat. This victim narrative is extremely prolific: in 2007 88.6% of Israeli Jews agreed that ‘the Jewish people have been under existential threat throughout history’ (Halperin and Bar-Tal, 2009). Binyamin Netanyahu stated in his 2009 Holocaust Memorial Day speech: ‘The world sounds a weak voice against those who advocate erasing Israel.’

The loss-averse element of human psychology works concurrently with the Israeli siege mentality, rendered relatively immutable thanks to the mechanisms already discussed, to massively emphasise the threats of certain strategic concessions compared to the benefits (Bar-Tal and Antebi, 1992). The result of this is that is that the priority is given to the considerations of the military apparatus, and that this establishment becomes an authoritative source on subjects involving Israel’s strategic position in the conflict. We note the 82% of Israelis who trust the IDF, far higher than any other government institution. This means that when it comes to goals such as reducing terrorist attacks, the IDF is turned to disproportionately as an escalatory solution as opposed to negotiation. An example was Operation Cast Lead in 2009, in which Israel invaded the Gaza Strip in response to rocket attacks (which claimed relatively few lives), as opposed to possible negotiation in order to achieve mutual de-escalation. For Israel, given its superior military technology and organisation, a state of conflict and a state of security are not mutually exclusive- Israel is willing to endure the status-quo of protracted conflict to maintain security, and is willing to walk out of negotiations and initiate military escalations for its protection.

6. Conclusion- What is necessary to remove existing barriers?

‘Politics is war without bloodshed; war is politics with bloodshed.’

            -Mao Zedong

The way societies handle and respond to conflict is chained to the manner in which they perceive the world as a whole. In this way, military strategic planning and civilian political and cultural thought are linked together in a way which precludes separation. Inherent psychological traits, such as perceptual accentuation, are near-impossible to deconstruct. Whilst these attributes are embedded in the human psyche, socio-cultural beliefs are embedded in rigid, powerful societal institutions. The real key to breaking down psychological barriers to peace is the slow but major restructuring of these societies, such as the secularisation of Palestinian institutions, reducing echo chambers and eroding the paralysing patience and the paranoid fear that has taken hold respectively on the Arab and Israeli sides.

Only through these means do we create room for a shift to occur.


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One thought on “The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Socio-Psychological Barriers to Peace

  • I view this as a coherent and well thought out article which touches ‘all the bases’, from the psychological, religious, economic and cultural. I’m biased but seems to come to the same sort of conclusions that I have come to . (Secularization of Israeli society as well as Palestinian society is also needed—which seems to be basically promoted in the article–extremist Israelis (eg ‘settler movement’ and Likud)— are half the problem).

    Alot of people are still fighting over things which happenned decades if not centruies ago —before they were born— and some fighting about their ‘land rights’ in Israel-Palestine were not born there and have never been there. In USA, some of the biggest supporters is Israel are ‘Christian Zionists’. Some of the biggest supporters of palestinians (incdluing extremists) are upscale American jews such as and as well as and

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